US public offers support for Obama's Iraq intervention
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, DC - Despite rising criticism of his foreign policy– even from his former secretary of state – US President Barack Obama's decision last week to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) militants in northern Iraq enjoys relatively strong public support, at least so far.
Over half (54 percent) of respondents in a poll released here Monday by the Pew Research Center and USA Today said they approved of the airstrikes, which appear to have helped reverse some of the gains made by ISIS fighters against Kurdistan's Peshmerga earlier this month.
Thirty-one percent said they disapproved of the strikes, while 15 percent of the 1,000 randomly selected respondents who took part in the survey, which was carried out between Thursday and Sunday, declined to give an opinion.
The poll found major partisan differences, with self-described Republicans markedly more hawkish than Democrats or independents, although a majority of Democratic respondents said they also supported the airstrikes.
However, a majority (57 percent) of Republicans said they were concerned that Obama was not prepared to go "far enough to stop" ISIS, while a majorities of Democrats (62 percent) and independents (56 percent) said they worried that he may go too far in re-inserting the US military into Iraq three years after the last US combat troops were withdrawn. Overall, 51 percent of respondents expressed the latter fear.
That concern was felt particularly strongly by younger respondents, members of the so-called "millennial" generation, whose foreign-policy views have tended to be far more sceptical of the effectiveness of military force than those of other generational groups, according to a number of polls that have been released over the past two years.
Thus, while respondents over the age of 65 were roughly equally split between those who expressed concern about Obama doing too little or going too far, more than two-thirds of millennials said they were worried about the US becoming too involved in Iraq, while only 21 percent voiced the opposing view.
The survey comes as the administration broadened its air campaign against suspected ISIS targets in northern Iraq and rushed arms and other supplies to US-trained Iraq special forces units and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia whose forces proved unable to defend against ISIS's initial advances that took its forces to within 35 km of Erbil, Kurdistan's capital.
When Obama last week announced Washington's renewed intervention in Iraq, he stressed its limited aims: to protect Iraqi minorities, notably thousands of Yazidis besieged by ISIS on the slopes of Sinjar, against "genocide", and Erbil, where the U.S. has a consulate and hundreds of personnel, including dozens of U.S. military advisers, part of a much larger contingent dispatched to Iraq in June after ISIS conquered Mosul, the country's second-largest city and routed several divisions of the Iraqi army.
Obama also said Washington intended to protect "critical infrastructure" in the region, which he did not define further at the time. In a letter to Congress released Sunday, however, he declared that ISIS's control of the strategic Mosul dam, which is Iraq's largest and supplies much of the country with water and electricity, constituted a threat to the US Embassy in Baghdad.
"The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger US personnel and facilities, including the US Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace," the letter asserted.
Indeed, US warplanes and unmanned aircraft, operating in co-ordination with the Peshmerga and Iraqi special forces, repeatedly struck ISIS positions there in the last few days. By Monday evening, the Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces said they had successfully retaken the dam.
The initial success of the US air campaign – 68 airstrikes have been carried out to date, according to Washington's Central Command (CentCom) – follows Thursday's resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a critical step, in the administration's view, toward establishing a less-sectarian government capable of reaching out to disaffected Sunnis who have joined or co-operated with ISIS without necessarily sharing the group's extreme and violent ideology.
Obama has long insisted that US military assistance to Baghdad would be calibrated according to the degree to which its Shia-led government was willing to compromise with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
US pressure helped persuade Maliki to step down in favour of Haider al-Abadi, a fellow-Shiite and Dawa party leader who Washington hopes will be more willing to share power with both Sunnis and Kurds. But experts here give as much or more credit to Iran – the latest example – along with critical role played by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is considered by the US to be a terrorist group, in rescuing the Yazidis and bolstering the Peshmerga - of how the growing threat posed by ISIS to the region's various regimes has upset its geo-political chessboard.
The initial success of both Obama's military intervention and his role in removing Maliki will likely help counter the steadily accumulating chorus of attacks – mostly by neo-conservatives and Republicans – on his foreign-policy prowess.
Even some in his own party, including, most recently, his former secretary of state and presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, have complained that he should have provided more support to "moderate" factions in Syria's insurgency earlier in that country's civil war and that he was too passive for too long in responding to ISIS's advances in Al-Anbar province earlier this year.
But the latest survey, as most others released over the past year, suggest that Obama's caution reflects the public mood, and especially the sentiments of younger voters, as well as the Democratic Party's core constituencies.
In addition to asking whether they feared Obama would either do too much or too little in countering ISIS in Iraq, the pollsters asked respondents whether they thought the "U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq."
Overall, 44 percent answered affirmatively, while 41 percent said no, and 15 percent said they didn't know.
Those results marked a major change from when the same question was posed in July. At that time 39 percent said yes, but a 55-percent majority answered in the negative, and six percent said they didn't know.
While the change may be attributed to the sense of increased threat posed by ISIS to the US itself, much of the news media coverage since the beginning of August focused on the plight of minority communities, especially Christians and Yazidis, threatened by ISIS's latest campaign.
The percentage of respondants who believe the US has a responsibility to take action in Iraq is significantly higher than the percentages that took the same position when the US intervened in Libya and when Obama said he was prepared to conduct military action against Syria after the chemical attacks.
Detailed surveys about foreign-policy attitudes conducted over the past decade have suggested that US respondents are most likely to favour unilateral military action in cases where it could prevent genocide or mass killings.